Communication skills

How to use active listening to become a better leader

- February 24, 2023 5 MIN READ
Two women in conversation

Natasha McNamara is a vocal coach and communication specialist who assists everyone, from politicians to CEOs and small business owners, to communicate more effectively. She joined editor Cec Busby on the Flying Solo podcast to share some brilliant tips every business leader needs to know about the importance of active listening.

Natasha’s expertise in helping her clients build confidence and become strong communicators has never been more critical. After pandemic lockdowns changed how many enterprises do business and communicate with one another, she says many business leaders are rusty in their face-to-face interactions and communication styles.

“Many of the recent workshops I’ve been doing have been about refreshing those communication skills. Particularly because so many people have been on Zoom rather than face-to-face for a long time. Suddenly they have to present in front of a live audience. So, to refresh those skills is very important.”

How active listening helps leaders become better communicators

Perhaps ironically, Natasha says one of the most important aspects of effective communication is not about what we do or say but rather how well we listen.

“Active listening, or listening to learn rather than listening to respond, is a very powerful skill that we need to practise,” she says. “When having a conversation, most people are thinking about what we’re going to say or about our next appointment or meeting – we’re not really present with someone. And when someone’s not present with you, it really leaves a mark, and we know how it made us feel.

“Maya Angelou said, ‘People don’t remember what you do. People don’t remember what you say, but people remember how you made them feel’. When you listen to someone, you give them your presence, which is really powerful. We have forgotten how to listen because we’re thinking about what we want to say.”

How to be a more active listener

According to Natasha, awareness of your conversation partner’s non-verbal cues is the key to becoming a better listener. She says you can achieve this by focusing on your senses, not just what you hear.

“A good skill is using the senses to see, hear and feel what’s going on and what’s not being said,” she suggests. “Focus on the other person using all of your senses. Observe their body language – how are they holding themselves? Notice if they’re feeling confident or unconfident. Notice their gestures and their eye contact. Listen to their pitch and intonation – what about their voice reveals what they’re saying? What are you seeing or hearing that’s not being said? Those micro-skills of noticing another person’s non-verbal and verbal cues make you focus on the other person rather than yourself and what you want to say.

“Working on your listening skills allows you to lead with empathy and kindness, compassion and vulnerability,” says Natasha. “As leaders, we need flexible communication skills, and awareness is the beginning of that. For example, work on not interrupting someone and listening to the end of their sentence; listen for the cue that they’re finished.”

Male and female colleague in conversation

How active listening helps with difficult conversations

If there’s one thing that’s inevitable for every business leader, from department managers to CEOs, it’s that difficult or sensitive conversations will occur from time to time. Whether it’s an employee who is always late to work, a client who never pays on time, or a personality clash between staff, achieving a positive outcome from a difficult situation is an essential skill for any business leader.

Natasha says active listening combined with empathy and compassion is the key to achieving this.

“Taking the emotion out and sticking to the facts is very important,” she advises. “Rather than saying, ‘you are always late for work, and it annoys me’, you would say, ‘I’ve noticed on the last consecutive Mondays that you’ve been 20 minutes late.’ Then tell your story, outlining the consequences of that. So, ‘when you are 20 minutes late each Monday, it throws out the timing of our team meeting’. Then the most important element is to ask for the other’s response and be willing to listen to what’s going on for them. This is a step that I sometimes see missed.”

To achieve this, Natasha shares an acronym that can help leaders use active listening in tough conversations: HAQR, which stands for Hear, Acknowledge, Question, Respond.

“We must hear first,” she says. “Sometimes we can go to blame or defence, but it’s important to hear what the other person’s saying. Then we must acknowledge what they’ve said – that might mean paraphrasing or feeding it back. Next is to ask an open question where you can get the other person talking rather than just a yes or no answer. Then it’s time to respond.”

Final tips

Becoming a more active listener not only helps you become a more decisive leader, but Natasha says it also helps build relationships with workmates and clients alike.

“Being curious about other people and building rapport is very powerful. Never underestimate small talk in leadership because you need to build rapport and trust with people to lead people. We need to understand who that person is and their needs and wants. When we stay focused on ourselves, we lose connection. It is so important to focus on the other person. Ask yourself, what do you want to make that person do, think and feel?”

Natasha’s final tip to keep your communication game strong is a brilliant one:

“Practising your listening in nature is really worthwhile,” Natasha advises. “We’ve become desensitised living in the urban concrete jungle, where our listening skills are removed. But deep listening can start with nature. Going for a nice bush walk, listening to the sounds of birds, the wind … spending time outdoors and listening to nature re-sensitises our listening skills.”

Natasha McNamara on Flying Solo podcast

Natasha shared many more great tips for becoming a stronger communicator, including some excellent advice on presenting with confidence. Listen to the full Flying Solo ep now.


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